Chile's family torture sessions shock nation
(The Observer, 17th March 1991)
Santiago (by Hugh O'Shaughnessy).- Chile is struggling under a
crushing burden of deep grief and high cant this weekend. The grief
is to be found among the tens of thousands of people who this month
are being given the first official explanation of how their loved
ones were slowly tortured or quickly murdered during the 17-year
dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Meanwhile, a torrent of hypocrisy is coming from the military and
from the senior judges, editors and journalists, who for years
betrayed their callings and acted as if no atrocities were taking
As Patricio Aylwin, the cautious, grey President whom Chileans
elected to succeed the dictator, starts his second year in office,
the crimes of Pinochet's regime have at last been officially
collated, examined, acknowledged and published -allowing a multitude
of people to mourn their friends and relations openly for the first
The grief is very deep. A week after publication of the report
-written by an official Committee on Truth and Reconciliation,
headed by a distinguished parliamentarian, Raul Rettig -the
newspapers are loaded with extracts tens of thousands words long,
which eager readers are studying.
The Rettig report, chronicling the deaths of 2,279 people -mostly
innocent civilians, and 49 of them under 16- which occurred in the
aftermath of Pinochet's putsch of 11 September 1973, confirms the
worst reports of horror that filtered out during the dictatorship.
The dry detail confirms that few, if any, of the accounts of torture
and death were exaggerated.
Truth has turned out to be worse than the Amnesty International
reports. Most Chile-watchers had known about the 2ft-square cells
built to house two people, the mock executions, the torturing with
electricity on steel beds, the near drownings in baths of excrement
and dogs especially trained to violate prisoners.
News to some of us were the report's revelations of routine use of
two-tier beds, where wives, mothers and grandfathers were tortured
within inches of their husbands, sons and grandchildren. And how
jailers called for boiling water and oil to pour over particularly
Places of torture, hurriedly camouflaged by Pinochet in his last
months as President, are listed in the Rettig report and are easy
to find. Villa Grimaldi, the largest secret police establishment,
has been largely demolished. Its address, 8200 Avenida Jose Arrieta,
now a building site, no longer exists.
Next to the British Council in the centre of town, where the better
class of Santiago teenager goes to learn about Drake and Lady Di, a
former torture centre has been transformed into an office supplies
shop. Number 38 Londres, for years a reception centre for secret
police prisoners, no longer exists either. There is a number 36, and
a number 40, but the house between bears no number. Lest anyone
forgets, the socialists have daubed the wall with the legend: 'Here
they killed and tortured people.'
Chile's grief, terrible to witness, is, like all mourning, a healthy
process in which the bereaved come to terms with the truth and in
which many who were seen as criminals are shown to have been victims.
Last Thursday, a group of Pinochet's opponents met at the cemetery to
honour Air Force General Alberto Bachelet on the anniversary of his
death in prison in 1974. Pinochet had had him tortured to death for
opposing the 1973 coup.
The word of Sheila Cassidy, the British surgeon whose account of her
own torture by the Pinochet regime was questioned in the House of
Commons by Nicholas Ridley when he was a Minister, has been
The logic of the Rettig report is that charges should now be laid
against the guilty of offences which cry out for retribution. The
cautious Aylwin, however, is moving slowly.
His own reaction, as a Christian Democrat, to the 1973 coup against
the civilian government of Dr. Salvador Allende was less than heroic
and during the dictatorship his criticism of the regime was muted.
Now, perhaps stung by conscience, he is tackling the thicket of legal
instruments Pinochet enacted to block any attempt to bring him and
his men to trial.
But Aylwin has only the feeblest authority over the armed forces and
'carabineros'. Pinochet continues as commander-in-chief of the army
while the carabineros, Chile's gendarmerie, have been acting in
defiance of the President.
'We were tear-gassed at a political meeting when someone was reading
out a message of support from Aylwin,' say Mike Gatehouse, who was
arrested in Santiago on the day of the coup, later became the leader
of the anti-Pinochet lobby in Britain, and last week revisited Chile
after 17 years. 'It's absolutely vital that the human rights issues
are tackled if there is to be any political progress.'
Although Pinochet is taking every opportunity to express
insubordination to Aylwin, his star is waning. Hounded by allegations
of corruption, he is becoming irrelevant. 'Pinochet will probably
have retired before the end of this year', said Luis Maira, a leading
In the slums of Santiago the publication of the Rettig report, which
recorded that the largest number of Pinochet's victims were manual
workers, has stirred hope that Aylwin will move more quickly to do
something for the poorest people.
'They've seen the report, now they want more,' said Andres, a social
worker in Santiago's northern outskirts.
As victims of the regime mourn, there is outrage from members of the
Supreme Court, whose total complicity with Pinochet has been recalled
by Aylwin several times since the publication of the report.
Oblivious to the fact that the Supreme Court never lifted a finger
while Pinochet committed his atrocities, the judges are now in the
highest dudgeon over Aylwin's criticism that Chilean justice was
Meanwhile, the establishment press, led by the conservative daily
El Mercurio, whose support for Pinochet was unwavering, and which
never uttered a word of criticism, is now campaigning against the
"wave of violence" said to be sweeping the country.
As Juan Pablo Cardenas, a leading journalist imprisoned for
opposition to Pinochet, said: "It's hard to accept such
disingenuousness when one realises journalists and judges were
invited to witness the bloody acts of Pinochet's secret police".
_________________________________end of O'Shaughnessy's report______